What is the reason for the custom of mourners tearing their clothing on the death of a loved one?
On the most basic level, the tearing is expression of pain and sorrow over the passing. Torah law encourages—in fact mandates—such expressions as part of the mourning process.
But there is also a deeper significance. Judaism views death as a two-sided coin. On the one hand, when someone passes on, it is a tragedy. They have been lost to their family and friends, and there is a feeling of separation and distance that seems beyond repair. For this reason we observe a seven-day intense mourning period, during which the family sits at home and feels that pain and loss, followed by a year of mourning.
But often, within that very pain, the mourners have an underlying belief that “it isn’t true”—that their loved one hasn’t really gone. This is not just denial; in a way they are right. Death is not an absolute reality. Our souls existed before we were born, and they continue to exist after we die. The souls that have passed on are still with us. We can’t see them, but we sense they are there. We can’t hear them, but we know that they hear us. On the surface, we are apart. Beyond the surface, nothing can separate us.
So we tear our garments. This has a dual symbolism. We are recognizing the loss, that our hearts are torn. But ultimately, the body is also only a garment that the soul wears. Death is when we strip off one uniform and take on another. The garment may be torn, but the essence of the person within it is still intact.
From our worldly perspective death is indeed a tragedy, and the sorrow experienced by the mourners is real. But as they tear their garments, we hope that within their pain they can sense a glimmer of a deeper truth: that souls never die.